You have to go back three years to find the last time someone not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic won a grand slam tournament. You would have to go back even further, six years exactly, to find the last time an American won a grand slam tournament.
2009 U.S. Open Champion: Juan Martin Del Potro
2003 U.S. Open Champion: Andy Roddick
Ironically enough, both of these two victories came at the U.S. Open and both bookended a five-year title run for Roger Federer. Also to add to the irony, both will be facing each other for the first time in a grand slam with a berth in the quarterfinals and a likely matchup with Novak Djokovic on the line.
Both also have their own unique story headed into this do-or-die clash.
Let's start by taking a look back at the story of what could have been, the story of Juan Martin Del Potro and the injury that set his career back an entire year.
The Height of His Career
Del Potro, who just a few short years ago was hoisting the U.S. Open trophy and enjoying a spot as the world No. 4, had to work his way back to the top after a debilitating wrist injury effectively ended his best chance to become a real competitor in the Federer-Nadal era.
It was in January of 2010, shortly after rising to the fourth-best player in the world that Del Potro injured his wrist. At first it did not seem like a huge problem, but when the year's first major in the Australian Open rolled around, Del Potro's wrist was still not healed. Still, he played in the tournament and managed to reach the fourth round before losing a heartbreaker to Marin Cilic.
After the Aussie Open, Del Potro was still bothered by the nagging injury and was forced to withdraw from several Masters tournaments early in the year. With Del Potro unable to defend his rankings points, he lost his No. 4 in the world to Andy Murray.
Having to withdraw from a handful of additional tournaments when the wrist just didn't improve, the young Argentine made the decision to have an operation to fix his wrist.
Some believed he could come back in time to defend his U.S. Open title even though Del Potro himself had targeted an event slightly after the New York event to make his return. That said, he was optimistic about being ready, Unfortunately two weeks before the tournament, he made the decision to withdraw knowing that he couldn't compete at the best level.
The Injury That Derailed the Champion
When Del Potro finally did come back, it was not to the same success he had before his injury. He lost consecutive matches upon his return and as the calendar turned to 2011 he found himself in completely lost territory as his rank, once No. 4, had now picked up an additional 481 numbers to it.
Now ranked just inside the top 500 in the world, Del Potro, still just 22 years old at the time, began his climb back to the top. He had to accept wild-card entries into many tournaments and was given a special exemption into others because his ranking did not qualify him for direct injury.
Del Potro loaded his schedule with tournament after tournament all in preparation for the Masters events and Grand Slam tournaments. With wins and losses piling up, it all seemed to pay off as when it came time for the 2011 Wimbledon, Del Potro had improved his ranking dramatically. It climbed even higher when he reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon for the first time. He lost to Nadal in the next round but battled every step of the way, showing the qualities and skills that had many thinking he would win multiple majors.
Returning to Glory
The year ended with Del Po as the No. 11-ranked player in the world. His year included beating the top-ranked Djokovic and giving Nadal all he could handle upon each of their meetings. He was named the ATP Comeback Player of the Year and helped his native Argentina to a second-place finish in the Davis Cup competition.
So far in 2012 Del Potro has continued to be at his best. He defeated Djokovic to win the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games and had every opportunity to beat Federer when Del Potro was up two sets to love at the French Open.
With another solid performance in a grand slam, now having reached the fourth round of the 2012 U.S. Open, the now 23-year-old Del Potro is back in the form that allowed him to beat Federer and win the 2009 U.S. Open crown. He seems to have fully overcome the injury and could be a tough opponent for any of the big three.
Having to overcome injuries is one thing, but having to shoulder the burden of an entire nation, all of them judging, critiquing and observing your every move? Well, that is something entirely different and something that Andy Roddick knows better than anyone.
Twelve Years and One Major Later...
At just 21 years old, an emotional kid from Nebraska burst into tears as he recorded an improbable and shocking victory at the 2003 U.S. Open. Before the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, this kid who clutched the trophy as if someone would take it from him, he was the future of tennis.
Little did the young Roddick know at the time, but in addition to the U.S. Open title which as it turns out would be the only one so far of his career, he also received something else in his victory. It wasn't necessarily a prize but rather a burden of expectations.
After all, Roddick, having won his first major championship so young, was touted as the next great American star. Having followed the tradition of the greats before him, Americans held every hope that Roddick would continue the American legacy of tennis greatness and grand slam success.
For America and for Roddick, however, that success never came.
Fans waited and waited for Roddick to win just one more major. They watched as he came close and as he reached the Grand Slam finals four more times. They watched as he won tour titles and as he became one of the best players to play Davis Cup of all-time. They saw all of this, but it wasn't enough for most because it wasn't another major.
2009 Wimbledon Final: Roger Federer def. Andy Roddick (5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14)
In the opinion of most, myself included, it was the 2009 Wimbledon loss to Federer that effectively changed and in some ways ended the career of Roddick. What is unfortunate about it is that had Roddick won, it likely would have sparked a career turnaround.
It was the best match he ever played as he broke Federer several times and managed to stay himself unbroken until the score was 15-14 in favor of Federer in the fifth and final set. It marked 37 straight service holds for Roddick and in the end was really a match that Roddick just couldn't swallow.
He took a long time to get over this heartbreaking and devastating loss, and his mental capacity for the game just wasn't there. On top of that, he seemed to be plagued with injuries from that point out. Just when he would recover from one, he would sustain another and eventually with his rank dropped out of the top 25, he finally decided to end his tennis career.
Every Match Could Be His Last
Having announced his impending retirement on the date of his 30th birthday in the middle of the 2012 U.S. Open, the opinion of Roddick has softened. Fans and media who once criticized his just one major championship are now respecting what he did do in his career, knowing that each match he plays could be his last.
There are so many elements of his career that have been unlikely and unfortunate, but no one will deny that it has been entertaining. Despite just the one Grand Slam title, he gave all that he had on the court most clearly evidenced by the 2009 Wimbledon loss.
On top of that, he was a Davis Cup stallion. In a time when most players shy away from Davis Cup because it isn't a major, or opt to play it only because of its effect on Olympic eligibility, Roddick actually cared about winning the title. Just as badly as he wanted to win another Grand Slam or an Olympic medal, Roddick wanted to win a Davis Cup for the U.S.
In 2007 he did just that, and with a 30-0 record including a 12-0 record in clinching ties, Roddick will most likely be remembered for his clutch and heroic Davis Cup performances.
In head-to-head play, Del Potro leads 3-1. All four matches have occurred on the same hard courts used by the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, the home of the U.S. Open. Two of the four matches, both of which Del Potro won, went the full three sets.
It is worth noting that Del Po's three victories all came in 2008-09 when Del Po was at the height of his game and when Roddick was struggling mightily. Roddick's only win against the Argentine came in 2011 at an ATP tour level event in Memphis, coincidentally enough during a time when Del Potro was the one just beginning to regain form.
In looking at the head-to-heads, both players have put themselves in position to win, and both played well. Also, the sample is kind of small to use that solely as the basis for who has the edge in their upcoming fourth-round match.
In addition to the head-to-head, it makes sense to analyze the years both players are having as well.
Roddick is coming into this U.S. Open in pretty good form. He is coming off a win against Federer, only the third in his career, from an ATP event in Miami and was also victorious winning titles at both Eastbourne and Atlanta, the latter as part of the U.S. Open Series. He raised his rank from No. 31 in the world back to being in the top 20.
Del Potro has also had a good year, and by his finishes in the four Grand Slams is having a better year than Roddick. Del Po reached the quarters of the Australian Open for the first time, won the title at Rotterdam and the Estoril Open and also won the bronze medal after defeating Djokovic in the Olympic Games.
So in terms of preparedness and freshness, both of these guys are pretty much on the same playing field, maybe with Del Potro having a slight advantage. They have also both displayed solid performances so far in their U.S. Open matches.
First Round: Del Potro faced off against Florent Serra of France and easily dominated the match. Winning in three sets by a score of 6-4, 7-6, 6-4, the Argentine converted on just 2-of-10 break points, but it was enough for him to win in straight sets. Throughout the match, Del Po served well and dominated the winners category having 48 to just 29 unforced errors. Roddick also had a pretty easy first-round match and was off the court in a little under two hours. Against his American opponent, Roddick won by a score of 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 as he converted three break points, won 90 percent of his first service points and scored another 20 aces to add to 37 winners.
Second Round: Del Potro faced the up-and-coming American Ryan Harrison in his second-round match and beat him in four sets by a score of 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2. Although Harrison battled, forcing the fourth set, Del Potro was really in control the entire match as he hit his forehand, backhand and serve well. It wasn't perfect, but it was enough to break Harrison seven times. Roddick conversely had a very easy time beating the also u-and-coming Bernard Tomic who just didn't seem into the match at all. Roddick had 13 aces and no double-faults and easily broke Tomic five times.
Third round: With both given an unseeded opponent in the draw, Del Potro had an easier time as Roddick seemed to almost run out of steam. Del Potro beat fellow Argentine Leonardo Mayer 6-3, 7-5, 7-6. He converted on just 4-of-13 break points but had a lot of success when coming to the net. Roddick also won his match against the Italian Fabio Fognini in four sets by a score of 7-5, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4. He started with an early break, his first of five in the match, but also saw his serve broken for the first four times in the tournament. In the end, however, and with the New York crowd urging him to fight, Roddick came back from the brink of disaster to beat Fognini and book the match with Del Potro.
If you were to rate both players entering their head-to-head, the slight edge has to go to Del Potro. Roddick's arm looked dead at times, and at 30 years old, it is a wonder if he will recover and be able to play the kind of tennis needed to beat the talented Argentine. Del Potro is also younger, seven years younger and in many ways had a less taxing and physical match.
With the two men having likely two days of rest, it could benefit Roddick. He will also likely be the beneficiary if they do in fact play a night match on Arthur Ashe, a place where Roddick has the most matches of any player in history. Not to mention, the New York crowd will once again be all-in, and Roddick himself will be spurred on by giving all that he has and leaving nothing on the court in his final professional tournament.
KEYS TO THE GAME AND PREDICTION
1. Del Potro is a good serve returner but not the best on tour. For Roddick, he has to serve well, even better than he did against Fognini, if he wants to win. Like many Americans, his game begins with the serve and strong forehand. If he can execute and win these points, Roddick will win the match. I estimate he will have to win anywhere between 80 and 85 percent of points on his first serve if he hopes to beat Del Potro.
2. Del Potro is an all-around player, but is particularly known for his incredible forehand, considered by some to be one of the best in the world. He also has a very respectable two-hand backhand and like Roddick, a powerful serve. Like many opponents against Roddick, Del Potro will benefit from long rallies. Because of the ability to use the forehand to get winners, if Del Potro is in control of the point, 90 percent of the time he will win it.
PREDICTION: It is finally time for Roddick's swan song as this will be his last career match. Del Potro will get the victory, albeit in a close and hard fought battle: 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3.